“I don’t get it. Why do we have to fight?”
AVENGING NINJA is a movie with no ninjas, and no vengeance. And I don’t think it’s a metaphor, either. It’s just the marketable American video title for a Taiwanese/Hong Kong production that also goes by the more accurate title ZEN KWUN DO STRIKES PARIS.
The movie, which is produced by “John Liu’s (H.K.) Film Corp.”, stars John Liu, a Taiwanese martial artist who was in the SECRET RIVALS trilogy and INVINCIBLE ARMOUR, or “successor to the immortal Bruce Lee legacy,” as the oversized VHS box calls him. And he directs, writes and produces. Also he’s playing himself, John Liu, movie actor and founder of the Zwen Kwan Do fighting system, which he pits against various champions of different disciplines and nationalities. The credits list the championships of the five top-billed actors (“JOHN LIU 1964, 1967 World Karate Champion”). Also there are three names under the category “Top French Movies & TV Stars,” and somebody named “Brigitte Mannequin.” I’m not sure who that is, but I like her.
As the movie begins it’s in the news that John Liu, the disgraced martial arts teacher now working in the Hong Kong film industry, has been summoned to Paris to investigate the kidnapping of his father, a “well known American aerospace scientist.” He’s in no hurry though. He’s still filming a movie, and is told to slow down his moves so the camera can get them, something they used to say happened to Jet Li. But maybe they said that about everybody.
Some dudes attack him while he’s working out and tell him not to go to Paris. This is the first of many, many duels with random henchmen or karate champions. He says he knows karate and kung fu, but has his own style called Zen Kwan Do. It seems to be mostly kick-based. He does impressive high kicks, spins and over-the-shoulder-face-kicks like Cynthia Rothrock. But there are also angular, Wing Chun looking hand movements and even some throws and grappling, such as an armlock. The box ain’t lying. This movie has “All the power and dazzling fury of martial arts legend John Liu at the peak of his powers!”
In Paris he’s constantly challenged, including by the American karate champion Smith (Dan Schwarz in a tacky American flag gi) who thinks John insulted him because of a forged letter somebody sent him. You know how it is.
“Meaningless fight. Stupid. We’re both professionals, so why are we doing this?” John asks.
“Forget it. Talk later,” says Smith.
After John kicks Smith into a swimming pool he lectures him condescendingly: “I’ve always believed in respecting my opponent whenever I fight him, and in return they should respect me. Listen, real winning doesn’t matter. What counts is that you respect yourself. Otherwise you’re not worth a damn.”
We learn that he was disqualified from being a teacher because of a scandal that disgraced Zen Kwan Do. But his old teacher still cares enough about John to secretly send a student armed with nunchakas to Paris to watch after him.
The story gets more difficult to follow the more he explains/flashes back to his past. He summarizes the convoluted scandal, something about falling in love with a wealthy businessman’s daughter in Paris and the dad coming after him with a gun but accidentally shooting John’s friend Catherine instead and they ruled it a suicide and after listening to this part three times I finally understood that the young girl, the daughter of the guy with the gun (bear with me here) was pregnant with John’s baby, and went to live in a convent. Later we see a flashback and learn that the woman who died made him promise to say she committed suicide. I don’t understand why.
In the flashbacks we see that John is in love with Catherine, so maybe the business man wasn’t trying to kill him for dating/impregnating his daughter, but for cheating on her? We’ll never know.
John visits the cemetery with “quite expensive” flowers to put on Catherine’s grave. But it’s a big cemetery and dudes in suits and ties keep jumping out to fight him. He defeats them all without ever putting down the flowers.
He likes to rock sunglasses with traditional outfits, showing that you can be cool without becoming completely westernized. Or maybe just to look like Bruce Lee, who various people compare him to throughout the movie.
In one scene he’s practicing at home, doing different kicks and stuff, and he does the splits when suddenly the phone rings. Luckily it’s right on the floor next to him, so he just reaches over and picks it up. Kismet.
After one fight he goes to visit “his old friend” the dentist (later he complains that the new filling falls out). I don’t know if the implication is that he has lots of old friends (as all action heroes should) or that he gets teeth knocked out so much that he’s a really good customer to his dentist. Or both.
He also makes a new friend. He keeps having to fight the European champion, played by Roger Paschy. He duels him for what they determine is 4 rounds, complimenting each other’s fighting throughout, and agree to “save the last.” That ends up happening at sea. See, John falls for a really obvious seduction where two white women smile at him while fellating ice cream sundays. Then he “protects” them from some dudes “bothering” them and gets onto their small yacht, to watch them sunbathe and have a drink.
Never accept a drink from a stranger. When he wakes up he’s tied up and some dude is taking his shirt off and flexing. Yet again John gets to put on a gi and have a duel with Paschy. It’s a pretty cool fight because it’s on this small boat. Does that happen much? If you’re sailing around, do you see guys fighting on other boats?
It’s a good fight because instead of kicking the guy overboard like you’d expect it ends in fight brotherhood. He defeats him and then helps him up and they have a manly handshake. Because “The martial spirit always lives. It never dies. The Budokan spirit can never die.” And they fight the flexing bad guy (or “that black,” as John unfortunately refers to him) together.
On the VHS I watched there was some more Paris footage after that and a voiceover where he said he still had to find his family but he was returning to the Hong Kong film industry. Then it cut to a beautiful magic hour shot of the boat and, I thought, him toasting with someone. But there are a couple other versions on Youtube and they all end on the boat with John holding his sheath, Roger holding the sword, and them shaking hands.
So in either version it seems his attempts to visit his daughter and his baby mama or rescue his father are inconclusive. The end. Weird. It’s like if you took the first 2/3 of TAKEN but then before the climax Neeson says “I still have to find my daughter” and he flies home and then there’s a sunset and it goes to the credits.
The score all seems to be library music, sometimes wah wah funk shit, sometimes over-the-top bombast. One song they play over and over again sounds like dudes chanting “Heya heya heya!” and seems comical every time. In one part they play the beginning of “Live and Let Die,” and on that VHS ending they have an instrumental version of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” Because his way is to do a movie about going to rescue his father and then getting distracted and doing other stuff instead. Anyway I have a suspicion that those songs were not officially licensed.
The filmatism is amateurish and haphazard. It has that feeling of struggling to get a movie completed and having to settle for all kinds of mistakes caused by poor planning and unforeseen circumstances. Can they possibly turn this stuff they shot into something resembling a semi-coherent story-ish series of scenes? Just getting to the end is the victory, like a marathon, or ROCKY. So there are numerous scenes with explanatory dialogue over b-roll footage of Paris traffic, and many confusing edits and scene transitions. For example the American champion is tricked into guarding John’s nun ex-girlfriend and daughter. John wants to see them so he fights the guy, and wins. He’s warned not to go in… then it cuts to him at an exhibition match. I honestly don’t know if he’s supposed to have gone in or not.
I wish it had a little more compelling (or comprehensible) story to it, because even making no damn sense it impressed me enough to recommend it. Part of the appeal is the mystery of John Liu, who must’ve been a little deluded about being a filmmaker and the next Bruce Lee, but is also very likable. He’s handsome, has a very cinematic fighting style based on extremely flexible high kicks, and looks cool whether in late ’70s fashion or (more commonly) just walking around in a gi (or kimono they call it in the English dub).
And his movie persona is fun because he’s all about professionalism, avoiding needless fights, respecting martial arts, but he’s not the naive country boy archetype of WAY OF THE DRAGON or ONG BAK, he’s a worldly lothario. He impregnated the young girl while in love with Catherine, then he has a new girlfriend while in Paris and succumbs to the charms of the two ladies with the boat. Not to judge, but I feel pretty confident he hasn’t seen his last scandal in Paris. It should also be mentioned that there are two other women he fights who make sexy faces at him or straight up offer to have sex with him. This must happen to him alot.
But my favorite thing about this movie is that John Liu is playing John Liu. I’m a sucker for a fictional movie where somebody plays themselves. How much, if any, does he hope we’ll take as reality? In the movie the police give a long description of his history that seems like ABOVE THE LAW style real-or-partly-real biography:
“John Liu, born Hawaii, 1946, American-Chinese. Master’s Degree, Washington State U, World Karate Champion 1964, 1967. Creator of the Zen Kwan Do fighting technique, 1969. California Police Academy martial arts instructor, unarmed combat advisor to the FBI in 1971. In 1973 moved to France, became martial arts instructor of the Paris Police Academy in ’75. He also started a number of schools in Europe teaching the Zen Kwan Do technique in each country, the chief instructor of the European Zen Kwan Do Association.”
The part that really piqued my interest was the “Washington State U.” It would be interesting if he went to WSU, which is in Pullman, 285 miles east of Seattle, because it’s the rival school to our own University of Washington, where Bruce Lee went. But I could not find proof that this specific John Liu attended WSU, and the vague biographies I’ve found of him (this is the best) never mention him living or going to school in the States at all. He lived in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Paris and Spain, but no mention of Eastern Washington. So my guess is that they’re trying to toss a little bit of Bruce Lee’s biography in there and got the name of the college wrong.
The parts about the karate championships, creating Zen Kwan Do and running schools in Europe are apparently true. The parts about police academies are possible, difficult to verify, and therefore Seagal-esque. Weirdly the part that seems to be made up is being born in Hawaii and being part American. Who would play themselves in a movie but change their nationality? It could be just for the English dub, except there’s a Spanish dub on Youtube and it sounds to me like they call him American in that too.
This made me curious enough about John Liu to look into his two other directorial works. I still have to finish reviewing this one, but I’m needed in the writing industry. (sunset)(the end)
P.S. As obscure as this one is, it does not receive the coveted Zero External Reviews On IMDb badge. Here is the one reviewer who beat me to it (in German), Tofu Nerdpunk.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.